Product Spotlight10/24/2003

Bruce Cordell, Gwendolyn F. M. Kestrel, Jeff Quick, and Rich Baker

In this month's exclusive interview, the designers and developers of Underdark discuss building a world from the ground down.

Wizards of the Coast: Years' worth of publications -- game products, novels, Dragon articles -- have expanded the Underdark into a complex campaign setting. How did you sort through all those previous releases to create a more definitive sourcebook in Underdark?

Jeff Quick: I was the editor of Eric Boyd's exhaustively detailed 2nd edition sourcebook, Drizzt Do'Urden's Guide to the Underdark. Eric, as Forgotten Realms fans know, is a detail nut. When he wrote it, he consulted pretty much every Underdark reference ever -- including Bob Salvatore, personally. So rather than duplicate effort, I turned to that book for inspiration and to Eric for a few details and opinions. I advanced some things from Eric's book; very little is exactly the same. But you'll see plenty of continuity.

Bruce Cordell: One of the most freeing aspects of the book is that roughly two-thirds of it is new material, or at least new treatment of core Underdark concepts. There are new races amidst the old, new feats, new prestige classes, and so on, which of course requires less research into previous sources than actual "source" material.
But when it comes to source material: The designers of the 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting
did all that incredibly important but incredibly difficult work for us. As far as we were concerned, the FR campaign setting 3.0 was the canon. Any other bit of older source material we wished to bring to the table was frosting. That said, of course we would always look to older sources first when doing background material.

Rich Baker: As developer, I spent more time double-checking old sources and looking for significant references we might have missed. As it turns out, I had to do a lot of this research anyway for my work on Condemnation, the third book in the War of the Spider Queen series. I found Drizzt Do'Urden's Guide to the Underdark, Drow of the Underdark, and Menzoberranzan to be the most useful resources.

Gwendolyn Kestrel: Not only did I look to the various products on Underdark for inspiration, I sought out books on real-world caving, exploration, geology, and rock formations.

Wizards: What was your design process with Underdark?

Jeff: My job was city write-ups, which Rich Baker then tweaked after me to catch goofy stuff I let slip.

Bruce: Gwen and I essentially split the first seven chapters, each contributing about fifty percent of the material to each. Jeff was charged with writing the geography chapter, and I did the adventure sites. Rich Baker then had the task of stitching everything together, smoothing everything out, developing sections that didn't fit his vision of the Underdark, and picking up pieces that had fallen by the wayside, which sometimes required significant additional design.

Rich: I developed the book, as opposed to designing it. I did contribute some substantial design work to cover topics I thought we hadn't addressed in the first draft -- some notorious locales in Faerûn's Underdark, for example -- but in my case, it was simply a matter of filling in where I thought we could use some more details.

Wizards: The uninitiated might assume that the drow are the predominant (perhaps only!) race living in the Underdark. That misconception should clear up right away with the chapter on the wide variety of Underdark races. What's new in this chapter that even experienced belowground adventurers will not have encountered before?

Bruce: There are nine races in this chapter. A few are old monster races developed and written as player character races, such as the chitines and grimlocks. Others are completely new races, such as the deep imaskari and gloamings.

Rich: We also made sure that the "classic" Underdark races besides the drow -- specifically, the duergar and the svirfneblin -- got some attention, too.

Wizards: The 12 new prestige classes are extremely varied and intense. (The scarification ritual of the arachnomancer prestige class should lead to some interesting-looking PCs in the future!) Is there one that you anticipate will be especially popular with players?

Bruce: My favorite is the illithid body tamer -- though this prestige class is probably destined to be reserved for mind flayer NPCs. Still, it is my favorite.

Rich: My favorite is the shadowcrafter, which Gwen Kestrel designed. I think it's an especially elegant concept for a prestige class, because it is built around a suite of under-utilized spells (shadow evocation, shadow conjuration, etc.) and makes them better.

Gwendolyn: I agree with Bruce that the illithid body tamer is awesome. For player-focused prestige classes, I have two favorites: the deep diviner and the shadowcrafter. They both put interesting twists on aspects of magic (divination and shadow) that are often viewed as sub-optimal.

Wizards: Give us an overview of node magic -- what it is, how it works, and how it will impact players who campaign in the Underdark.

Bruce: Node magic plays off the concept that the earth is riddled not only with pockets of precious metals and minerals, but also pockets of concentrated power. Those with the proper knowledge can tap these pockets, or nodes, for increased spellcasting effect, plus other goodies, including a list of granted spells.

Wizards: Underdark introduces an array of new spells (more than 40 in all) and over 20 new monsters. (The "all-consuming hunger" is particularly terrifying, by the way). What are your personal favorites among these new additions to the Underdark?

Gwendolyn: I'm glad you like the all-consuming hunger. I guess that working on a project with Bruce, who is known for his wonderfully creepy monsters, I felt an urge to create something disgusting that I could call my own!

Bruce: My favorite monster is also the all-consuming hunger, 'cause it is yucky! Stone sphere is my favorite spell -- a simple concept that can play out quite well in the narrow confines of Underdark tunnels.

Wizards: Do you find it difficult to design new spells and monsters, given how many are currently in the overall D&D game?

Bruce: Sometimes it can feel difficult to design new spells and new monsters, given the plethora that already exists. However, the way I try to look at it is that each new idea is really just one more possible ingredient in yet another, newer idea made up of several ingredients. Like, you know, synthesis.

Gwendolyn: For me, designing new monsters and spells is interesting, and I haven't yet begun to exhaust ideas. I looked at the environment and considered the different denizens of the place. I asked myself questions like "What magic would a human develop to negotiate the deep caves?" or, "What can be done with portals to make them more (or less) useful?"

Wizards: The geography of the Underdark (and the exceptional two-page map that outlines the known world) is quite detailed. Pulling all of these places and their respective histories together in such a compact space must have taken an incredible amount of work. How did you produce essentially an entire world, its history, and some of its notable denizens in 60 pages?

Rich: Thank you! I worked very hard on that map. As far as the design process, well, one of the things we wanted to do is show off more of the Underdark than was covered in Drizzt Do'Urden's Guide to the Underdark. Eric Boyd thoroughly covered the Underdark of the North and the Underdark below the Lands of Intrigue, but didn't have space to discuss the rest of Faerûn. I encouraged the designers to create the Underdark beneath the rest of Faerûn. We decided to cover more territory in less exhaustive detail than Drizzt's Guide. I also added some design work here to help patch holes and try to smooth the new material with existing Realms canon.

Jeff: It would have been much harder to do from scratch. Fortunately, we had a lot to build on. My design process isn't really very glamorous. It mainly involved me sitting on my couch with my laptop surrounded by books. I did some research into real-world geology so that I could make more realistic settings. Not much of that made it into the final product, but I felt better with it behind me.

The trickiest thing for me was making dozens of disparate cultures hold together. Each city in the Underdark is really more like its own country. Because the Underdark is so inhospitable to practically everything except xorns, each civilization has to hoard water, food, and defend itself from all angles. I mean, not just have these things handy -- hoard them. Because if they don't, someone else will take it. Paranoia, xenophobia, and elemental hate are natural states, even if you're not a beholder.

Given those sorts of constraints, why would anyone ever do anything except sit in their warrens or fight? There are lots of reasons, but I had to figure out what they were before I could write anything reasonable.

Also, one of my design directives was to make it weirder the deeper we went, and I really like weird. Sometimes I think I've gotten too weird for the in-house design team, so I don't know how much survived to the final book, but I hope most of it. I think of the Lowerdark as a place of psychological horror. It's like the ocean floor with no light, lots of nothing, and then suddenly something terrifying and dangerous like a city full of mind flayers. If your DM is nice, the PCs don't all die. At once.

Wizards: Do you see many of these locales being expanded in future releases?

Jeff: I have no idea what will happen in future releases. Perhaps the tender buds of love will take root and grow.

Wizards: What's next on the horizon (just an expression -- there's not much of a horizon underground!) for players in the Underdark? What's the D&D design team plotting next?

Bruce: Well, I hope Underdark (the book coming out now) will keep people happy for at least a little while!

Rich: For Forgotten Realms, next up is the Player's Guide to Faerûn. It will serve as your one-stop D&D v.3.5 conversion for the Realms, as well as adding lots of new material that hadn't yet been converted to 3E and plenty of brand-new material designed specifically for v.3.5.

Gwendolyn: There's also a large Web enhancement to support the book for people who want even more Underdark.

Wizards: What are each of you working on right now?

Jeff: I have retired from the glamorous, lucrative world of game writing and mainly spend my days playing shuffleboard and lawn darts with a likeminded group of pelicans on the southern coast of Georgia. The fearless and chaste can come see my infrequently updated blog at Other people can come, too.

Rich: I can't say much about my "day" project, because it's a year away still, but at home I'm working on the first novel of The Last Mythal, a trilogy set in the Forgotten Realms.The Forsaken House will be out next summer, if I can ever finish the darned thing.

Bruce: Secret, secret! Well, I can say that I am of course working (and have worked) on a few D&D projects that will see the light of day next year. I'm also working on a Forgotten Realms novel. If all goes well, it should come out some time the middle of next year.

Gwendolyn: I've had a busy year. I've had the pleasure of editing several extraordinarily cool products: Draconomicon, the Expanded Psionics Handbook , and Unearthed Arcana. As a designer, I've been keeping busy with lots of freelance for the Web (the monthly Fey Feature with Faith M. Price) and a controversial book for another company.

The Wizards projects I've been designing aren't publicly announced yet, so I can't talk about them now except to say that I'm thrilled with them overall and with my contributions to them. On one of these projects, I got to work with Bruce again -- always a pleasure.


Rich Baker is a veteran game designer who has written or contributed to more than 50 game products, including 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, the Alternity science fiction roleplaying game, and the Origins Award-winning Birthright campaign setting. He has served as the creative director of the Alternity and Forgotten Realms product lines and as the managing developer of roleplaying games. Rich is also the New York Times bestselling author of Condemnation, third book in the War of the Spider Queen series, and several other novels in the Forgotten Realms and Star*Drive settings. He lives in Pacific, Washington, with his wife, Kim, and their daughters Alex and Hannah. He's a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies, Golden Age SF, and wargames of all sorts.

Bruce Cordell abandoned science for a design position with TSR, now Wizards of the Coast. His design credits (over thirty and counting) include the Expanded Psionics Handbook, The Sunless Citadel, and the Epic Level Handbook. He is hard at work on his second novel.

Gwendolyn F. M. Kestrel edits roleplaying games for Wizards of the Coast. She also has a growing number of development and design credits. For more information on her, please check out her website.

As of late 2003, Jeff Quick was spotted in the greater Atlanta metro area. If encountered, please treat him kindly.

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